An independent audit of the Coulee Region Joint Municipal Court and more than 30 boxes of unfilled citations found no evidence of fraud but revealed concerns about the oversight and handling of documents within the court.
During an Onalaska Common Council Finance and Personnel Committee meeting on Jan. 3, Monica Hauser of Hawkins Ash, the firm hired to complete the audit, said she had found nothing that would suggest any fraudulent activity.
“I didn’t find anything that alerted me that somebody was stealing money,” she said.
Hauser said the audit did find a concerning level of mismanagement and mishandling of court documents by Judge John Brinckman.
“The process is to leave notes for him (Brinckman) and make piles on his desk, so if he comes in before he goes to court he can look at something,” Hauser said. “There is a lack of organization of papers and files in the judge’s office, and there are cases mis-entered into Incode.”
Incode is a database used by municipal courts for the purpose of scheduling and case management.
In a letter to city officials, Brinckman responded to claims of mismanagement and questioned the veracity of the claims made in the report.
“On page three of this report is a section named general comments,” he wrote, “Again, there are no references or direct quotes to indicate where these concerns originated.”
He wrote the Hawkins Ash report mischaracterized his office.
“Yes, the room where HA (Hawkins Ash) Representative was working was in my office area, however that area is not an exclusive office, it is also the working area for the Clerks and City Attorneys” he wrote.
Brinckman’s letter stated the lack of specificity left him with no way of verifying the discrepancies cited in the report.
Hawkins Ash was hired by the Common Council to complete the $8,000 audit after 30 boxes of unprocessed court documents and citations were discovered in the basement of the Municipal Court early last year.
At a Common Council meeting in November, Mayor Joe Chilsen cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the audit despite the insistence of many council members it was an unnecessary expense.
The audit did find that the steps necessary to correct these concerns had already been taken by the city and the municipal court committee.
“It appears that positive changes have been made to the procedures for collections and reporting,” read the report.
Hauser recommended creating written policies that outlined when citations should be submitted to various government entities and databases.
Hauser reported only minor discrepancies were found when attempting to balance the court’s financial reports. Most were related escalating fee schedules.
However, Hawkins ash did find numerous discrepancies in the handling and reporting of citations by the court.
The Common Council grappled with the results of the of the audit during a meeting Jan. 9.
Council member Jerry Every expressed frustration that neither the council or the municipal court had much control over what happens to the citations next.
According to City Attorney Sean O'Flaherty, the city is only responsible for the financial management and administrative oversight of the court and the citations were the responsibility of the court itself.
Every insisted that the Common Council should do something to ensure any unprocessed citations are not forgotten. He went so far as to suggest the city end its involvement in the joint municipal court.
“We lost more money by not processing these things,” he said. “I would hate to see this get kicked down the road.”
Council member Jim Binash said the audit’s findings mirrored those of the city attorney's investigation and that the common council as well as the Joint Municipal Court Committee had already taken the necessary steps to address the mismanagement.
“There was no malfeasance or any dropping of the ball by the common council or by anyone,” he said. “Our finance director has made changes; our city administrator has made changes, we have a new (municipal court) supervisor.”
Binash said the city had acted appropriately to correct the situation and it is now up to the court to follow through.
Every insisted adding he would like to see the Common Council reach a consensus as to how to ensure that the citations processed.
Council Member Bob Muth expressed confusion over how the common council could do any more than it had.
“We’ve done everything we can on our side to rectify and try and straighten this out.” Muth said.
The council voted unanimously to approve the findings of the audit.